Kena Paranjape and Jen Lee Koss, Brika, Women Entrepreneurs

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I have said this before that I actually do read all my emails and respond.  I got an email from Jen that gave me an overview of Brika and of course a few of mutual connections.  I really love what both Kena and Jen built but told them about our house rule.  We have a very hard fast rule in this house which is one investment per vertical.  We are investors in Etsy and Brika sits in that space.  She figured so much but just wanted to get some advice.  It took some time as my office was destroyed by Sandy but we finally got together.  Both Kena and Jen are impressive women who have curated a collection of talented makers that celebrate the art of crafting. 

Jen grew up in central NJ.  Her parents are from Korea.  Her mother came over during the Kennedy administration as her Grandfather was the US ambassador for Korea.  Her mother continued her education in the states at Julliard.  Her mother has continued in music her entire life building a program through Julliard to promote and nurture young Korean musicians.  Her father came to the US as a medical student at UPenn studying to be a neuroradiologist.  Her parents met at a wedding and the rest of history. 

Jen embraced her mothers love of music and went to Julliard from age 10-18 to train as a cellist.  After graduating she got into Harvard but deferred for a year to attend the a musical conservatory in Germany.  She always believed she would do something in music.  At Harvard she made a conscious decision to take business classes.  She ended up landing an intern job at Goldman Sachs doing both sales, marketing and working on debt capital markets.  Jen was offered a job there when she graduated but she also had an opportunity to go to Oxford University to get her masters in musicology, a blend of music and performance.  It was the professors at Harvard that recommended she do this and she received a John Paine fellowship through the Department of Music to go.  BTW, on the side Jen played lacrosse at Harvard while she was there too.

Off to England and after graduating from Oxford she stayed in London.  She took a job with the Parthenon Group working on analytic research and strategic advice for retail businesses.  She worked on Kettle Chips, a fitness center group and a few with a bend in the non-profit world.  She decided to move back to Boston and work for the Bridgespan Group which is the non-profit world of Baine Capital.  Jen became concerned that she was backing herself into a corner with the non-profit angle.  She decided to go to Harvard Business School and change directions. 

Jen loved the art of the deal and after graduating HBS she took a job again in London at JPMorgan.  Then as she puts is life got in the way.  She met her future husband who runs Right to Play in Canada.  She took a trip with him to Toronto and now one marriage and two kids later she has settled in to life in Canada.  Until recently she worked at the Ontario teachers plan doing pension plan investing with a $12b fund in private equity and $6b in direct investing.  She worked there with the small retail team.  That is of course until she met Kena.

Kena grew up in Halifax Nova Scotia and at 11 they moved to Newfoundland. Her Mom has a PHd as a linguist where she taught in the local high school and then went back to get her masters to shift into the world of being a librarian.  Both her parents came to Canada in their 20's from India.  Her father came to get his masters and PHd in oceanography.  The area where they live is highly educated as there is a university there so growing up Kena knew nothing else. 

She graduated from high school and went to McGill University.  She started off majoring in chemistry and six months after school began her father passed away.  It made her dislike chemistry and she turned to the environmental sciences which she really enjoyed.  Upon graduation her mother said now you should go get a masters but Kena had other ideas.  She moved to Toronto and landed a job at doing marketing at Indigo.  She stayed there through the merger with Chapters.

Kenas boyfriend now husband got a job in SF to work at a start-up building medical devices.  She decided she would go too and landed a job at the Gap doing marketing.  It was a great job but she could not get her visa.  She wondered if she got a MBA would it be easier to get her visa and the answer was yes.  She went back to Toronto to get her MBA at University of Toronto but returned during the summer to work at the Gap until she graduated.  During that time she met many merchants.  She found that was who she really connected with.  It was crystal clear to her that she wanted to be a buyer, a merchant.  She landed a job buying mens woven bottoms at Old Navy and stayed for a year and a half.  Unfortunately her husband became ill and they moved back to Toronto. 

He slowly got better and Kena took a job managing the womens businesses at Joe Fresh.  Her role was more planning than merchandising but she got to work with Joe and learn a lot.  Kena wanted to have her own business from the time she was 16.  She knew the right idea would eventually come to her.  She decided to start a blog which was a great creative outlet for her.  Starting that blog was a way for her to own something that was only hers and think about what business was out there for her to start.  Kena left Joe and went to work for Pistachio a high end eco friendly brick and mortar store.  There were no buyers when she got there but the owner and Kena got involved and eventually ran the whole thing for two years. 

Jen had started to read a lot of blogs.  She particularly loved consumer retail blogs.  She loved each ones individual voice and aesthetic.  She had been reading Kenas blog and loved it.  Jen decided to shoot Kena and email to see if she would be interested in having a cup of coffee and much to her surprise she said yes.  They were both living in Toronto, they were both at a crossroads in their lives, they both had young kids, they both wanted to do something that they owned and was creative and Jen happened to be on her second maternity leave when they met.

The one coffee turned into a weekly coffee.  They would give each other homework.  Kenas job was working with a lot of makers and was inspired by them.  She would see the customers come in daily and be inspired by each unique piece.  They asked each other is there a place where you can go daily to be inspired and see unique products to buy that also has a community.  The answer was no and so Brika was born.

At the same time they finally figured out their business together Kena was offered a job at Target.  It was a defining moment for the two of them.  At first she said yes to the job and then two weeks later she changed her mind.  Jen had also been offered a job as the director of strategy for Holt Renfrew and she turned it down too.  Brika has been up and running for six months now and they have put their efforts into something they are passionate about. 

The site has grown organically.  It has been incredibly rewarding and challenging for both of them and you can tell that they are having the best time.  The makers love working with them.  There are also off line components that they plan on working on from meet-ups to working with bloggers.  What was inspriing for me is talking to two very smart women who are so obviously excited and engaged in what they have built.  That is exactly what you want to see in an entrepreneur sitting on the other side of the table.